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Creating Conversations—Sitting Down With Chhaya Dabas

Chhaya Dabas is a poet and the founder of Baatein, an online poetry and storytelling platform. She started writing poetry when she was ten years old and hasn’t stopped ever since. Baatein aims at rekindling the lost charm of meaningful conversations in a world that has become extremely self-absorbed and a society that is slowly losing the ability to connect with each other. Her work has been featured on many notable platforms such as CNN, India Times, HerSaga, and Sheroes. We, at The MIT Post, had the chance to talk to her about the art of conversing and the story behind Baatein. She was one of the speakers at TEDxManipal that took place on 24th February, 2019. 

What was your inspiration to start ‘Baatein’? How important do you think it is for people to partake in conversations in their day-to-day life?

I started Baatein in 2014, and initially, the vision was purely to give a platform for my writing, but I realised its potential when I saw how it was interacting with people beyond the purposes of a blog. Growing up in a digital world, my team and I noticed that the people were getting a lot more social online while losing out on talking to the people around them about things that mattered. It’s important to talk about one’s emotions rather than saying “R.I.P” on Facebook because the younger generations depend on us and we’re creating a world for them. Over the years I have not only found my own voice and expression in Baatein, but it also became a platform that many people found relatable and inclusive to interact and converse on, irrespective of their background.

Regarding why it’s important for people to start conversations, I feel there’s a lot of apathy in the real world, and so much politicization alongside the spread of digital media. We wanted to create a bridge because it’s important to think of where the impact of digital communication, possible even across borders, is actually happening. Baatein wanted to create a safe space for people to share their ideas and create passionate outcomes of what they believe in. The fact that you and I are talking about why conversations are important is exactly whybecause you will take something away from it and I plan to hopefully take something away from my TEDx experience. Our conversations and experiences make us who we are, the whole soul within us. Phones and technology can provide emoticons but can’t replace tears or a hug or laughter. So as we and digital communication proceed ahead, human interaction has to go hand in hand with it. It’s about symbiotic balance, rather than confusion and apathy towards it.

What made you realize your love for writing, and how did you decide that poetry would be the best form for you to express your emotions?

I was born in a household where almost everyone around me had a very literary taste. For example, my grandfather is a Ph.D. in linguistics; he’s written over 17 books in Hindi of research and poetry. My maternal grandparents are both remnants of partition. My Nanu was a Railway officer when bodies were being transported from both the newly found countries. My mother was a teacher, and my grandmother was a singer at All India Radio. So basically, we grew up in an environment where stories became part and parcel for life.

My grandfather and I grew up reading stories of Panchatantra, Akbar-Birbal, etc. It became a whole house of creativity, to express what you feel and be vivid and imaginative, because of which I was inclined to at least try my hand at writing. I never knew if I would be good or bad; I still don’t know, it’s a learning process. I was ten years old when I wrote my first poem.  My language wouldn’t have been refined at that age, but that was an expression which not only I discovered, but my well-wishers and teachers as well. It started with trying to understand myself because I’ve always believed myself to be a very bubbly and extroverted kid who never shied away from talking to strangers. I felt poetry would express the other sides of me.

Being a woman, you get exposed to gender stereotypes in various forms and adversities, depending on where you are. I tried to understand this by channelising various aspects of it through my poetry. For example, a friend of mine who was a photographer did a series where she captured young Muslim girls in their various daily activities. There was a picture that she clicked, of young Muslim girls standing wearing hijabs with their eyes closed. I got really attached to that picture; I wrote about how, irrespective of religion, women for all their lives are told to look down, in terms of not raising their eyes, not raising questions or not lifting a finger. In the poem, I talked about how today they’re challenging something that’s stopping them, and after a point, that anger has to burst out. It was an inspiration that came from the picture I saw, which spoke to me about something. So that’s how writing has always taken part in my life, what I’m not able to form in spoken words or actions sometimes comes out well in the written aspect.

You battled cancer when you were 13 years old. Was there any aspect of your struggle that affected your work ethic or the focus of your content?

Writing became more prominent in my life when I dealt with cancer, which was in 2008. And that took away a year from me, I didn’t have hair at that time and I couldn’t go to school normally. You’re a teenager at that point and you’re just stupid at that age. Writing became more prominent to just understand this process because I was too young to understand what an MRI means. But I was not that young to not understand that this is what pain also happens to be like. So that’s how writing became not only a healing process for me, but a distraction as well, and something that helps me understand what was happening in my own grief because I was just 13 years old. So since then, it has been my way to understand the different aspects of life and to express them.

And of course, since writing is a reflection of what you see in the world and your understanding of it, my content also changed accordingly with context. For example, I’m writing a fictional story about a child who lost her father to cancer and about how it’s her experience in understanding that life goes on. I wrote a poem for my doctor as a thank you note which he still has kept in his mandir, which was very special for me. I met a girl who was with me in the ICU; both of us were bedridden so we just talked but I still remember speaking to her even though I didn’t know who she was. I’ve been wanting to write about all these things for a very long time even though I still feel I may not be putting forward my best work. I’m not talking about the words or expressions you’re using being bigger and fancier, I’m talking about the expressions behind it. Writing evolves with what our purpose is as we grow up, and how we engage with the worldthe people we love or hate, how we deal with worries and concerns and experience happiness. For me, writing is a constant reflection.

‘Baatein’ is now a platform for many artists and writers to get in touch and collaborate with their talents. Did you expect it to grow into such a big community for poetry? How do poets feel about their work getting recognition?                                                                                                                      

‘Baatein’ was a blog I started with two other people—a girl from Hindu college and a guy from NSID. Since I was in DU and also in the Dramatics’ Society, I was able to inform people more about what I was creating alongside growing social media. People were recognizing me a little and talking about how ‘Baatein’ was a great place to read poetry, so that was a beautiful encouragement. And then in 2015, during the DU fest season, we decided to put a couple of stalls in some prominent collegesthe idea was just to engage with people and bring the stories on the platform.  But we chose the route of creating some merchandise around it and it got a phenomenal response even though we were not going in the market with an idea of making a profit. Over the years ‘Baatein’ has just found its own routenow it’s a fully-fledged organization with a 10 members strong team and office where we’re making money as well. And I think the crux maintains the same as we did interact with more people. On 3rd March, we’re collaborating with Faraz Arif Ansari, who’s the creator of India for LGBT which has won over 50 Awards internationally. He’s doing acting workshops for the transgender community and we are coming on board to create a poetry evening for the community itself.

At ‘Baatein’ we’re not looking for Shakespeares or people with the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a place that people feel happy about. This is something that we try to maintain and of course, getting recognition as a poetI’ve been very lucky to have been recognized on some notable platforms at a young age, with a very long way to go. But it matters because the art space had found recognition only in recent times, as opposed to being considered a hobby or passion. Now you have professional and full-time spoken artists, you have painters, you have professional drummers. To me, the world is much more creative and accepting now, and the digital world has a huge role to play in this—we’re exposed to so many opportunities not only within our expected geographies, you’re able to work with someone sitting in some random point in London from Delhi as if you’re just next door. I believe that poetry gives people a much-needed outlet. I feel honoured that I’ve been invited to give a TEDx talk, just the fact that the idea clicked somewhere makes me happy.

Your efforts to help people initiate conversations have moved to from a blog to an Instagram platform for such a big community now. How does this transformation make you feel?

It is quite scary because it lacks structure and routine that my 9-5 job offered before I decided to make Baatein my full-time profession. Our team feels overjoyed when someone messages us on Instagram about how much they loved a post or the whole community, and even when brands approach us to offer sponsorships for our events. We have put our heart and soul into this, and although it is a business that needs to make money, our goal is to make people feel happy and content at the end of each event that is organised by us. In the process of transformation, I think we’re still a caterpillar and there’s a long way to go before we become a butterfly. Seeing people communicate and contribute is the most beautiful part of this process.

How do you think your art inspired others to come out and share their art too? What impact did you wish for it to have on the audience?

I wanted Baatein to make its readers and writers feel happy when they join the community and then they could choose to create content or contribute in their ways. We try to encourage everyone to write or just express their emotions in any way that suits them. Readers usually find our content simple and relatable which is what I was aiming for. When I was younger, I used to think that poetry was something that had to be explained to me by someone and had to conform to a rhyming scheme, but now I know that poetry doesn’t lie in complicated words and it’s the emotion that matters. We don’t judge whether a poem is good or not and we understand that everyone who has sent in an entry has done so with the intention of creating something. Instead of disregarding any poem we try to offer some constructive criticism which will help them improve since not everyone in the community is a professional or commercial writer. Whoever wishes to use this route to express themselves is more than welcome because Baatein is purely conversational and who are we to pick and choose who gets to talk.

What are your future plans for ‘Baatein’?

Because of my personal journey, I never planned for five years or even a year ahead because you never know what’s going to happen next. Staying in the present and focusing on what I want to do each day is what matters to me the most. We still have a few milestones that we have set for ourselves, the most immediate one being a traveler’s and writer’s cafe. We also hope to publish a book for Baatein and maybe start a school one day. Our main goal is to reach as many people as possible in as many forms conceivable.

What advice would you give to an amateur poet or entrepreneur, and how can they achieve their passion in a more financially sustainable way?

I had the opportunity to attend a talk delivered by Ritu Kapur, the founder of The Quint. She said if you have an idea, just go for it without being worried about it; you never know what that idea could become. I was frustrated with my job which left me with no time to give to my creative passion. Before I left the organisation that I was working with, I knew that I needed to have a business plan and a basic idea of where the money would come from.  I left only when we had found our first client for Baatein. An entrepreneur should ask themselves four questions before starting a business which areWhat is the basic idea? What do you create? Are you passionate about it? And where will the money come from for the business to be financially stable? It is important to plan the business out after weighing in all these factors. If you’re passionate about your dream people would want to help you out and want to contribute to making it bigger by attaching their dreams to it.

I think that a writer’s content should be driven by passion. If they feel strongly about a certain issue, they should use writing as a means to express their emotions. Their passion will guide their flow of writing, and they won’t have to worry about what the next line should be. I wrote my entire TEDx talk in one go because it came from my heart. The grammar polishing step followed right after, but I tend to focus more on the emotions that I experience while writing. Writers should go with simple words instead of using the thesaurus and complicating things. Although, the rules of the language are important and a writer should abide by them. Even commercial forms of writing require their writers to put in all of their heart to deliver a simple yet catchy line for an advertisement. My advice for a budding writer would be that they should try to read as much as they can and write to satisfy their own yearning and not someone else’s demands.

Featured image credits: Baatein’s Instagram account.